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Briefly Noted: Nanook of the North (1922)

In 1910, Robert Flaherty was hired by William Mackenzie, a Canadian railway  entrepreneur, to prospect in the area east of Hudson Bay (Canada) for railway and mineral potential. He made four lengthy expeditions and came into contact with the Inuit people who lived in that frigid and extreme climate. During one of his expeditions, he bought a movie camera along and made a documentary — a genre which did not exist — about their lives and survival techniques. That film called the Nanook of the North was released in 1922.

The movie follows an Inuit family — husband, wife, kids, dogs — as they go about their lives foraging for food. For them, food is the primary concern and they go wherever food is available. Sometimes they find a region with lot of fish; sometimes there is a walrus or a huge seal. Since the game is unpredictable, the entire family is on the move. Once they make the kill, they eat, feed the dogs, build an igloo and spend the night. The next day, the nomadic routine starts all over again.

While we see snowy white all over, the Inuit sees the landscape differently. He for example knows exactly where the fox trap is. Without such intimate knowledge of the land, there is no chance of survival. There are other strategies to survive too. In an area, the size of UK, there are 300 Inuits, but no one lives alone. They live as a group with total co-operation. At the same time, the group cannot be very large. With small groups, a small amount of food — a walrus or seal — is sufficient. Also, small groups don’t finish off all the available resources.

Since they are constantly mobile, they don’t carry unwanted luggage, but just what is hard to replace or time consuming to make (e.g. tools). It is an amazing scene as they settle for the night. It takes the Inuit an hour to build an igloo, complete with a window. They undress and use their dress as the mattress and blanket. The dogs stay outside and pups stay in a small igloo. The next day, they just walk away from the igloo like any modern American householder who has put 0% down payment on his house.

This black and white silent movie with English intertitles is not very authentic in some places. The family shown in the movie was not a family, but just a photogenic cast. The Inuits had started using rifles and Western wear by this time. Some hunting scenes were staged. Despite this, the movie is interesting for one reason. Agriculture has been around for only 10,000 years; 99% of human history was spent as foragers. Now that our supermarkets offer potato chips with varying levels of cholesterol, it is interesting to see how people lived without agriculture, how they killed fish by biting off its head and how they lived eating raw walrus meat. 

References:

  1. Lecture 1011 & 12 of MMW1 by Prof. Tara Carter, UCSD.
  2. Image via Wikipedia

2 Responses to Briefly Noted: Nanook of the North (1922)

  1. Kulin Shah November 26, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    We should learn from the culture of Nanook, they know simply how to survive in the harsh conditions and they know how to cooperate.

    We on the other hand do not come up from bickering and petty politics and humongous scams.

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  1. Revolutionary Ideas from Göbekli Tepe | varnam - May 23, 2011

    […] theories on the origins of complex societies. How were foragers, who usually follow the resources like the Nanook, able to stay at one place and move 16 ton stones without wheels or animals? Why did they even […]

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